If folklore were to be believed, people would often wander to their storage closets, blow the dust off the latch, creak open the door, and be stunned by the vibrant, nearly priceless artwork lying forgotten in the half light.
That doesn’t happen very often.
Most of the art tossed into closets is there because people have gotten tired of looking at it on their walls, because it was an unwanted gift, because it was a pity purchase at a crafts fair, bought as the artist stood by.
Institutions have closets too. Theirs also can house unwanted art, no longer fashionable paintings, and pieces given by donors who are cleaning out their own closets. And those works have to be available to be rehung temporarily whenever the donors visit.
But sometimes, the closet door opens and reveals a masterwork.
That’s what happened not long ago in a Jewish institution (that prefers to remain anonymous) on the West Coast.
“Last summer, I got a call from that institution,” Benjamin Doller said.
Mr. Doller is chairman of the Americas at Sotheby’s, the storied auction house where he is an executive vice president. He’s also a senior expert in 19th- and 20th-century European and British art, and has found, appreciated, and sold mind-bogglingly expensive works of art.
He also has strong local connections. He grew up in Teaneck; graduated from the Yavneh Academy, now in Paramus, and his parents were founding members of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Aaron.
“Someone was cleaning out a closet,” Mr. Doller said. “They found a painting that had been hanging on a wall many years ago, until the institution did a renovation. It and some other art that had been donated was stored in a closet.
“The executive director did some googling.
“I was on a plane to see it within a week.”
Two things about that trip. “When I went to that institution on the West Coast, I wore my Sotheby’s yarmulke.” Your what, Mr. Doller? “My sister, Shira Grosser, teaches at Yavneh. She’s taught there for years. My niece, Eliana Grosser Rotenberg, made the yarmulke for me.” Ms. Rotenberg also is a Yavneh alumna, he added, and two of her three children go there. (The third is still a baby.)
The other thing — that painting — was “The Western Wall” by Gustav Bauernfeind.
And Sotheby’s got it. It will be sold at auction on Thursday, February 1. Its estimated value is between $2 million and $3 million.
Bauernfeind once was a well-known painter; after he died, his reputation was obscured, but appreciation of his work — and of its value —is rising now.
This work, “The Western Wall,” shows the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Bauernfeind was born in Germany in 1848. Although we don’t know much about his family, or anything about him until he was a young man, he might have been Jewish, or he might have had some Jewish ancestry, Mr. Doller said. We do know that he trained as an architect and worked at an architectural firm at the beginning of his career, “so a lot of his paintings have architectural elements in them,” Mr. Doller said.
His career developed logically. He seems to have gone from making architectural drawings to painting works that had architectural content to creating paintings of specific places, with a draftsman’s eye for logic and detail.
As an artist, he was an Orientalist, with that school’s fascination for what was called the Levant — the Middle East. That might have begun because his work in Germany didn’t sell particularly well, but he seemed to have been drawn to the color and light and life of the Middle East.
“He lived and worked in Lebanon” — his sister lived in Beirut — “and Syria” — he painted scenes in Damascus — “and in 1898 he settled in Israel with his wife and son,” Mr. Doller continued. “In 1898, they settled in Jerusalem.”
His work shows an artist drawn to the religious life, at least as it is expressed outwardly, in public, by other people. And he seems to have fallen in love with the country that became Israel, slightly more than four decades after he died there, in 1904. He is buried in the Templar Cemetery in Jerusalem’s German Colony; there is a huge cross marking his grave.
“Bauernfeind liked painting architectural scenes, and he painted the Kotel a number of times, from a number of views,” Mr. Doller said. “Sotheby’s in London sold one in 2007. The estimate was one to one and a half million dollars, and it made six million dollars.
“It’s the same size as the one we are offering” — the canvas is 50 by 38 7/8 inches — “but there are fewer people in it,” he added.
Sotheby’s is selling another work by Gustave Bauernfeind in the same lot. It’s called “The Dome of the Rock.” “It was also painted in Jerusalem,” Mr. Doller said. It’s smaller than “The Western Wall” and is estimated to sell for significantly less money, but it is also beautiful, and also shows Bauernfeind’s love for the place, its light, its people, its structures, and its mystery.
There is much social and cultural history in “The Western Wall.”
Many of the 19th-century Orientalists, the artists who went to such exotic (but still reachable by land from Europe) places as the Ottoman Empire, Palestine, the Levant “took a poetic license when they painted,” Mr. Doller said. “They weren’t necessarily 100 percent accurate. But my sense is that Bauernfeind would have gone and seen and studied what he painted.”
He thinks it is most likely that Bauernfeind had seen all the figures in the painting, and rendered them accurately, but he also thinks it is possible that he hadn’t seen all of them at once. “He probably would have made a lot of preliminary drawings onsite,” Mr. Doller said.
Then as now, the Kotel drew people to pray while standing as close as they could to it, touching it if they managed to, but it was not set up as an Orthodox synagogue then as it is now. It was not gender-segregated formally; there are women in the painting along with the men, although they all seem to be at the back.
The figures are dressed in ways that show the cultures from which they came — Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi — and they’re all standing together, with no apparent barriers of class or custom dividing them.
There are names, in Hebrew, written on the Kotel. “In those days, people would write on the stones, instead of putting papers in between them.” The punctiliousness of Bauernfeind’s work is evident in the legibility of those names.
There is a good market for Judaica, Mr. Doller said. “It is my sense that the Kotel picture most likely will go to another Jewish institution or a Jewish collector. And “there are about five or six American museums that are actively collecting Judaica,” he said. “A lot of museums have endowments for it.”
As for “The Western Wall,” “As a painting, it is spectacular,” Mr. Doller said.
He knows. “We had it lightly cleaned, and the colors are amazing,” he said.
His job comes with perks; he can hang some of his favorite pieces in his office until it’s time to auction them.
“I have had the pleasure of living with ‘The Western Wall’ in my office for a few months.”
Talking about both the painting’s color and its execution, “It’s brilliant,” he said. “Without question, this is Bauernfeind’s tour de force. It probably is his greatest painting.”